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This is a followup to a comment exchange and particularly this comment over on ELL.

One user contends that a double negative is always wrong in standard English. This user also maintains that:

First, "un"-prefixed adjectives, etc, or verbs like "disagree", are not negatives in a grammatical sense. Secondly, a double-negative occurs when somebody uses two negative terms but actually means a negative (instead of a positive) result, such as "don't promise nothing", which is logically inconsistent with what was said, and therefore wrong.

I disagree. I maintain that such sentences as:

  • He is not unattractive.
  • He is not without charm
  • He doesn't have nothing but the clothes on his back.
  • This gem is not uncommon.
  • The price of the car is not insignificant.
  • The new disease wasn't non-infectious.
  • He wasn't irresponsible about his duties.
  • I can't get no satisfaction.
  • I don't disagree"
  • Mr. Jones wasn't incompetent.
  • We can't not go to sleep!
  • Nor did they fail to take account of it.
  • We don't need no badges!.

contain double negatives, and are mostly acceptable English. Is it correct to limit the term "double negative" to the situation "when somebody uses two negative terms but actually means a negative"? Can anyone supply an authoritative source for the usage of the term? I am already aware of the Wikipedia article but its citations are not wonderful.

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    I don't know where the statements you quoted come from. They're quite incorrect. "Double negatives" are a persistent source of confusion because there is a simplistic (and wrong) zombie rule about two negatives cancelling each other out. Except (a) people don't know what negatives are, and (b) they don't always cancel out. Negation is very complex, and simplistic solutions should be avoided. Commented May 1, 2022 at 18:00
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    Then there was the English teacher who told her students that, while it's not correct formal English, a double negative does imply a "positive". However, there is no situation in English where a double positive can equal a negative.... To which a student in the back of the room responded "Yeah, right!"
    – Hot Licks
    Commented May 1, 2022 at 18:32
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    This looks like a duplicate of Are "not uncommon" and similar phrases double negatives? Should their use be avoided?. Or are you looking for something beyond that?
    – Laurel
    Commented May 1, 2022 at 18:38
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    I'm not a fan of He doesn't have nothing and We don't need no badges. But I can't get no satisfaction is a song lyric and gets a pass for living in that category. For the Stones to correct that would be for Rhett Butler to tell Scarlett that he frankly, didn't give a darn. Commented May 1, 2022 at 18:52
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    Isn't there an ELL Meta? That's where this belongs. Commented May 1, 2022 at 20:06

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In a comment, John Lawler wrote:

There is no single meaning of the term "double negative", as you have seen. Many people use it in different ways, most of whom know nothing of negation or logic. If you start off by asking what the "correct meaning" of a linguistic term is, you're going to start an argument. Read some things about negation, like my encyclopedia article and its references, and you'll see what I mean. There is an entire literature about negation and cancellation, rather than a correct meaning.

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